All the fun and revelry of the Middle Ages, minus the plague

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Some people dream of white sandy beaches, swaying palm trees and pink sunsets for their vacations, others of dancing and fine dining on a posh cruise ship. Me, I dream of slogging through sticky, stinky mud in layers of heavy, unwieldy and frequently uncomfortable clothing in the crushing summer Pennsylvania heat, the air so thick and humid you could choke on it. And, all without benefit of electricity or modern conveniences.

It’s called Pennsic, a medieval world of the Society for Creative Anachronism, complete with kingdoms, castles and marketplaces. Each July, about 12,000 people descend upon Cooper’s Lake, and an entire medieval world springs up from the grassy hills. In two weeks, it disappears without a trace. The fact that this occurs at all is a bit of a marvel.

As you approach the grounds, driving through the rolling sea of lush, green Pennsylvania woods, you come over a rise and suddenly there’s an expanse of medieval canvas pavilions stretching to the horizon. Takes my breath away every time. You pull onto the grounds to register, and the “mundane” world slips away while medieval lords, ladies, pageantry and peasantry swirl around you, the heartbeat of tribal drumming, the tang of campfire smoke permeating the air. You’re handed a medallion and welcomed “home.” And that’s just how it feels.

Pennsic revolves around a “war,” where fighters can bash each other senseless with not-so-real weapons that leave very real gashes and bruises. But when you “die” on this battlefield, you can come back and fight again the next day.

Don’t know how to fight? You can learn. Not into weapons? No problem, you can learn anything “period”: glassblowing, weaving, history, dance, cooking. If it existed in medieval times, someone is teaching it at Pennsic.

So, it’s a Renaissance Faire, you’re thinking. Not even. At a Renaissance Faire, you watch re-enactments. At Pennsic, you’re part of the re-enactment. There are no street clothes or cell phones, no computers or electricity. Most folks focus on a specific era, from 600 to 1500 A.D., most commonly European, and develop a “persona.” You can become someone else, somewhere else, sometime else at Pennsic.

So, what’s your medieval fantasy? Bellydancer? Grab your jingly hip-scarves and shimmy off to the nearest campfire. It doesn’t matter if you can’t dance. If you say you’re a bellydancer, you’re a bellydancer.

How about a Viking warrior, clad in leather, fur and chain mail? Knight in shining armor? Go for it. Don’t have the garb? You can find it in the marketplace. Lusty wench flirting with velvet-clad noblemen? Just lace up the girls, strap on your tankard and you’re good to go, m’lady.

Me, I haven’t committed to just one persona yet. I like letting my multiple personalities come out to play. Hmmm… it’s Tuesday, I must be Indian.

Then there’s the knightlife. (What a serendipitous typo!) Because Pennsic is a private camp, you can’t charge money for alcohol, so drinks are free and mostly home-brewed — everything from pilsners to stouts to delicate mead (honey wine). Just find a party and enjoy, whether a cozy pub with Celtic musicians, bardic circle with songs and storytellers, or even a wooden pirate ship, complete with pirates who like to go “skivvy fishing.”

One of my favorite camps is Casa Bardicci (google it and be astounded), a 1500s lakeside Italian villa, complete with ballroom and courtyard, musicians and minstrels. Casa Bardicci hosts the annual “Hoity Toity” party, where everyone gets all gussied up in their best medieval duds that aren’t yet caked in mud.

At this year’s Hoity Toity, The Cutest Man In The World was at another affair, so I just settled onto a courtyard bench to wait, and absorbed the magic. I was dressed in black and gold brocade and white satin, my hair pulled back in a white snood and silver circlet, surrounded by “royalty” — women in ornate velvet gowns and silky veils, men in ermine-trimmed robes and gold crowns, or doublets, hats and hose. The reflection of the full moon sparkled on the black, glossy lake, orange campfire torches winked from across the shore, and a dulcimer and harp tinkled as lords and ladies stepped through an elegant bassadanze on the black and white checkerboard ballroom floor. It was like slipping through a crack in time.

When it was time to meet “m’lord” at the front gate, I threaded through the crowd, spotting him in his 15th century green tunic and cape, and huge, ridiculous floppy green and yellow Italian hat that was all the rage in 1450, and my heart fluttered.

Yes, fluttered.

Shut up.

I know it’s lame. So, I have a weakness for cute boys in tunics and capes, OK? Makes me all silly and swoony. Or maybe it’s the mead. Or maybe my snood was too tight. Whatever.


My other favorite party is Ladies’ Night at The Duchessa’s. The Duchessa throws an extravaganza for the girls on the last night of Pennsic, with dozens of meads, yummy food, and male servants sporting nothing but a loin cloth and a smile, bearing trays of dates, figs, chocolate and cheeses to serve the ladies standing in line for free massages. Around the roaring bonfire, we’re entertained non-stop with poi dancers, jugglers, musicians and acrobats.

Finally, my massage turn came. I relaxed on the massage table in a candlelit tent, a scantily clad young buck rubbing my bare feet with scented oil, the night air throbbing with tribal drums and the rhythmic jingling of bellydancers, the taste of strawberry mead lingering in my mouth, and I decided that it doesn’t get much better than this. And I also had an epiphany: Palm trees and pink sunsets are so overrated.

— Email Debra at; read more of her work at and

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